To all who labor to provide legal services to the poor – thank you!

Labor Day was created to recognize Americans workers and their many contributions to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.   It is particularly poignant in this economy, as hundreds of thousands of Americans seek work, and the jobless rate continues to climb.  In addition, the majority (63.4%) of low-income Californians are working and still cannot pull their families above the poverty line.  In 38.3% of poor families, a family member is working full-time, and in another 25.1% someone is working part-time. Workforce participation among the poor is higher in California than in the rest of the nation.

New York Labor Day Parade image

Labor Day Parade, New York (1882)

On this day when our country celebrates the American labor movement and a wide variety of workers, here at OneJustice we honor the work of a particular sector – the staff and volunteers at the almost 100 legal nonprofit organizations in California that seek to bring a little more justice into the world.

OneJustice supports a network of just under 100 nonprofit legal organizations which employ around 1,700 workers and under 800 attorneys.  This network takes on the Herculean task of trying to meet the legal needs of the over 8 million low-income Californians facing legal barriers to basic life necessities.  Clean water.  Food.  Health care.  Employment.  Education.  The simple math adds up to 10,000 eligible clients facing pressing legal issues for every staff attorney.  Clearly, the task is too big to be taken on alone.

That is why OneJustice also celebrates the hard work and compassion of the hundreds of volunteer attorneys who – in addition to their busy practices in the private sector – volunteer with these nonprofits to help expand the legal services for the poor.  These dedicated volunteers show up at night and on the weekends – they staff free legal clinics and represent low-income individuals in court – they make grandparents into legal guardians, combat identify theft, make sure seniors get their medicines, and empower survivors of domestic violence to move forward.  Sometimes they even board buses and travel for hours to provide free legal help to those in isolated and rural areas.

OneJustice Volunteers Help Low-Income Californians

Like the poet Marge Piercy, at OneJustice we love “people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience / who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward / who do what has to be done, again and again.”

So – to everyone who strains to bring justice into the world, who does what has to be done to expand legal help for the poor, who labors to make the world just a little fairer – we thank you!

Now that you know who OneJustice celebrated today – who do YOU honor on Labor Day?

Celebrating a Legacy by Taking Action

A Day of Celebration and a Day of Action – by Candace Chen, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at OneJustice

UC Davis law students providing free legal help to seniors, supervised by attorneys from Legal Aid of Napa Valley

César Chávez left a legacy as an educator and civil rights leader. Each year, Californians commemorate and celebrate his legacy on César Chávez Day by promoting a day of service in honor of his life and work. Rather than enjoy a rare day off from law school, a group of law students from the University of California, Davis School of Law volunteered with OneJustice’s Justice Bus Project at two estate planning clinics for seniors on March 30, 2012. These incredibly dedicated law students traveled an hour and a half and weathered the rain in order to help Legal Aid of Napa Valley provide free legal services to low-income seniors living in mobile home parks in Calistoga.

That’s right, I said mobile home parks in Calistoga. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I have visited Calistoga countless times and never once did I imagine, let alone see, there were mobile home parks in Calistoga. When I hear the name Calistoga, I immediately think of wine county, quaint Victorian bed and breakfast inns, and romantic spa getaway. When I travel down Lincoln Street, the main road in and out of Calistoga, I never saw even a shadow of the mobile home parks.

Like so many marginalized communities, the residents of these mobile home parks are kept hidden from most people visiting Calistoga.

Kristi Lesnewich, Senior Staff Attorney at Legal Aid of Napa Valley, talked to the students about the history of the two mobile home parks and the impact the law students would make in helping to provide access to legal services in these marginalized communities. The students met with 14 seniors and helped them prepare a number of estate planning related documents, including Advance Health Care Directives, Power of Attorney of Finance (“POA”), and simple wills.

Students from UC Davis School of Law celebrate Cesar Chavez’s legacy by moving into action and providing free legal help to low-income seniors.

Many of the seniors commented on how nice it was to know that young people cared about them and their issues. One client wrote, “I believe that this [clinic] has prepared me for making proper decision regarding end of life events. This will save hardship on relatives left behind and now I can face the future securely. Thank you for having students who are kind and knowledgeable in the law that affects seniors. I almost died three years ago in a car accident and had no idea how to pursue health directive, POA, or will. Now I feel educated….Thank you!”

Despite the wet weather, the law students and seniors left the clinic smiling. The Justice Bus brings legal solutions by eliminating geographic barriers to justice – creating help where there were only problems – just as the normally dry golden hills of California transform into lush green fields after a few days of rain.

Justice Bus Project wins Award for Nonprofit Excellence

Law Students on the Justice Bus

We are so proud that the California Association of Nonprofits (CAN) Insurance Services recently announced that they have selected OneJustice and our Justice Bus Project for their 2012 Award of Nonprofit Excellence!  The fact that this award is not limited to nonprofit legal organizations – but instead draws from the entire statewide nonprofit sector – makes us particularly proud, because it is also recognition of the important role that legal help plays in the emergency safety net system for Californians in need.

The Justice Bus Project is the only “on the ground” project in California that brings together nonprofit legal organizations, law schools, and the private legal sector (law firms and the legal departments at corporations) to transport legal professionals from the urban areas where they work and live to rural areas of the state, where thousands of Californians face pressing legal needs with no access to legal advice or help.  The clients served by the Justice Bus Project often live in isolated areas, far away from the closest legal nonprofit organization that could help them.  Those nonprofits do their best to have lawyers “ride a circuit” (meaning they literally pack up their cars and drive through their service area, trying to reach those isolated pockets of poverty) – but this happens infrequently at best.

California’s law schools and law firms are located in the urban coastal areas of our state – the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.  The highest poverty densities are in the Central Valley, the area on the border with Nevada, and the middle of the state in the far north.  This significant mismatch in resources and need is our reality – but that does not (and should not) be the end of the narrative.  While a report released two years ago by the California Commission on Access to Justice clearly documents the inequity that exists in rural legal resources – few have moved from thinking about the problem to actually doing something about it.  Rather that accepting this inequity, California’s legal community should work together to use transportation – and technology – to get the resources (lawyers and law students) out into the areas where their help is so needed.  The Justice Bus is just one way of making that happen, and we’re thrilled that the rest of the nonprofit sector is recognizing its importance.  Thank you to CAN Insurance Services for this award!